Dr Tom Hiscock – systems biologist (#76)


Tom is a research scientist trying to understand how embryos develop into animals. He started life as a single-celled embryo in the small town of Battle on the south coast (of ‘Battle of Hastings’ fame). Since then, science has taken him on many adventures and to many places, including Boston USA where he trained, and Cambridge UK where he currently works.

Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?

The other week I was reading about a peculiar species of frog – the marbled balloon frog. These frogs have a remarkable ability to completely regrow their tails, arms or legs after being injured. This is a feat by itself, but this research article described an experiment that truly amazed me. They cut off the frog tail, added vitamin A and, to their surprise, instead of a tail growing back at the injury site, several arms developed!! My first reaction was to laugh – it seems the only adequate way to express the wonder and bewilderment at such a bizarre phenomenon.


Can you give me a sketch of your career, what led you to where you are now and what are the aims of your research?

I always enjoyed mathematics and physics at school, so at university I chose to study theoretical physics, where I learned about how physicists build mathematical theories about how the world works. Through a series of chance encounters, I was introduced to the field of systems biology, which tries to apply ideas from mathematics and physics to understand biology. I flew off to the US to pursue my PhD, hoping to study models and equations, but ended up spending six years staring down microscopes… it was amazing! I had the privilege of watching single-celled embryos develop into complex animals, such as fish, frogs and chickens. Since then, I have returned to the UK and work as a research scientist at the Cancer Research UK Institute in Cambridge.


Why are biologists obsessed with zebrafish? What makes them special?

Biologists love zebrafish for 3 main reasons: (1) they’re tiny (less than 0.5mm across); (2) they’re completely transparent – you can see right through them; and (3) they turn from single cell to swimming larva in less than 24 hours. This means you can take the eggs, put them under a microscope and directly watch them develop – in real time! Another appeal of zebrafish is that they actually are not so special. Many of the processes that go into making the brain or the muscle or the eyes of the zebrafish are very similar to those in humans. That means we can gain insight into human development and disease by studying tiny zebrafish embryos.

Development of a zebrafish embryo (time in hours) made by Ian Swinburne and Sean Megason from Dept of Systems Biology, Harvard Medical School. Licensed under Creative Commons by Attribution 3.0. More details in their research paper here.

Is there a god-like part to your research? Fertilising, controlling and observing the development of embryos?

Most of what I do is watching embryos as they develop. It’s not really me, as the researcher, who is doing much; it’s the embryo who’s in charge. It more feels like I’m peeking into what the embryo is doing and hoping to discover something we didn’t know before.


What should the limits of human curiosity be?

That’s a tough one, and something I’m not really equipped to answer! My gut response is that there shouldn’t be any limits on human curiosity. Knowledge, by itself, is not bad; it’s the things that we do with the knowledge that might be. So… whilst understanding how embryos are made is fascinating, manipulating these processes – particularly in humans – is something that will require careful consideration and regulation.


Where do you think are sense of wonder comes from and how can we cultivate it?

I think wonder might be the default state. As a kid, I often found things amazing – I think most kids do. It’s when I’m busy or worried or taking myself too seriously that science is less wonder-ful. So, in that sense, it’s perhaps less about cultivating wonder and more about giving myself time and space to take a step back, throw plans out the window, and just see what the data says!


What role does wonder have in the lab?

Being a scientist can be a difficult job. It often involves moving away from family and friends, you are constantly worrying about your next source of funding and you work long hours to get experiments done. Wonder – and curiosity – is the reason I’m still a scientist! It makes going into work genuinely exciting, and gives me a drive and a purpose that is very energizing.

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